AIPAC head of 2 years resigns amid mystery over reason why

WASHINGTON, D.C. — For the second time in two years, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee will soon have a new executive director.

Current director Neal Sher resigned last week, planning a return to his professional roots — namely, Holocaust-related work.

When he leaves in June, Sher is expected to be replaced by the pro-Israel lobby's managing director, Howard Kohr.

AIPAC insiders say Sher was pushed out at the request of the pro-Israel lobby's board of directors. But publicly, Sher and AIPAC president Melvin Dow deny the charge.

Jewish organizational insiders have mixed views about the impact Sher's departure will have on the organization.

Sher will assume a post involved with efforts to secure Holocaust restitution payments for Jewish communities worldwide, including those connected to Holocaust-era assets held by Swiss banks.

Sher is expected to be working in concert with the World Jewish Congress, which has spearheaded many restitution claims in recent years.

Sher, who directed the Justice Department's Nazi-hunting unit, the Office of Special Investigations, has a long career history focused on Holocaust-related matters.

Sher, who is a lawyer, also said he had an offer for a professorship, but would not give details.

Why the board pushed Sher out of the preeminent lobby's command post remains somewhat of a mystery.

But privately, AIPAC insiders and former lobby officials say the fit was never right.

"He's a good man and I've never heard anyone say anything against him, but you couldn't find a spot on his back without a hand- or footprint," said a former AIPAC official who, like most interviewed for this article, requested anonymity.

"Neal has a spark in his eye when he talks about Holocaust issues," this official said. "It's not the same with him for AIPAC's issues. It was only a matter of time before he left."

Sher came to AIPAC at the height of a tumultuous period.

The board pushed out his predecessor Thomas Dine in 1993. Dine, who spent 13 years at the organization's helm, resigned in the face of protests over published remarks he made that were seen as denigrating Orthodox Jews.

"Neal was a caretaker from the beginning," said a former AIPAC officer, who also requested that his name not be used.

"He was not the first choice or the second choice but the nonobjectionable one," the former officer said. "From a staff perspective, this was not the right fit."

After a lengthy search process, Sher beat out Kohr and Democratic pollster Mark Mellman for the post. Sher began his tenure in 1994.

Sher was selected, another former AIPAC official said, because he brought "moral stature and dedication to an institution that badly needed it" after the public flap over Dine.

For his part, Sher said his work at AIPAC has "been personally satisfying and highly successful as well."

In his resignation letter to Dow, Sher said, "The time has come to pursue other opportunities that have recently been presented to me."

Many AIPAC insiders believe Kohr will get the executive director position. Some say this was made clear at the staff meeting last week when Sher announced his resignation.

"My bet is that Howard [Kohr] will be the next executive director," Dow said.

AIPAC's board of directors was expected to approve Kohr's appointment Wednesday, an AIPAC official said.

Kohr, known for his support for the Republican Party, came to AIPAC more than a decade ago from the National Jewish Coalition, a Republican Jewish group. Before that, he served with Hyman Bookbinder at the American Jewish Committee's Washington office.

Some insiders believe Sher's departure does not bode well for AIPAC.

"An organization this important to the Jewish community and Israel is in a self-destructive mode of eating its own. How does this serve its cause?" one former official said.

Others say there will be little impact on the organization.

"For all intents and purposes, Howard has been running the shop for the past two years. From the outside, people will not see a change," a former AIPAC officer said.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said he did not believe that there would be a major impact on the pro-Israel lobby's efficacy.

"AIPAC's role will continue to be very important" regardless of its leadership, Hoenlein said, adding that Sher "has made a great contribution during his time at AIPAC."

In accepting Sher's resignation "with regret," Dow praised Sher's tenure at AIPAC as "a continuation of this pattern of service to the Jewish people which aggregates over 17 years."

Morton Klein, who as president of the Zionist Organization of America has sparred with Sher over AIPAC's support for the peace process, used Sher's departure to make one last swipe at the lobby's support of the Palestinian Authority.

"We hope that in his new position dealing with Holocaust issues, Neal Sher will speak out about the PLO's statements comparing Palestinian Arabs to Holocaust victims — something he was unfortunately silent about during his tenure at AIPAC," Klein said.

Kohr has said he would support whatever Israeli government is leading the Jewish state.